Coming close on the heels of the QUAD summit chaired by US President Joe Biden and US Defense Secretary Lloyd J Austin’s recent visit to New Delhi, the move by the the US Navy this week whereby they conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in Indian waters without prior consent declaring that that the exercise was intended to challenge India’s “excessive maritime claims” has kicked off a massive row.
WHAT IS THE CONTROVERSY ALL ABOUT?
The US Stand
As per a Press Release issued by Commander, US 7th Fleet, on April 7, USS John Paul Jones “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone [EEZ], without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law”.
The release further stated that the freedom of navigation patrols “upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims”.
Reiterating US’s position, the release also said, “U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
“We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements,” the release also said.
Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP)
The Freedom of Navigation Operations essentially involves ship passages conducted by the US Navy through waters claimed by coastal nations as their exclusive territory.
“We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements,” the release issued by the Commnder, 7th Fleet also said.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) says that FONOP has existed for 40 years. The DoD maintains that these “assertions communicate that the United States does not acquiesce to the excessive maritime claims of other nations, and thus prevents those claims from becoming accepted in international law”.
This incidentally is the first time the US Navy has issued a public statement giving details of the operation.
“The Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is that the Convention does not authorise other States to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state.
The USS John Paul Jones was continuously monitored transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits. We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of U.S.A through diplomatic channels,” the MEA press statement said.
There are fundamental differences between India and the US over rights of foreign military ships from conducting operations within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
When India ratified the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1995, it declared that in its understanding “the provisions of the Convention do not authorise other States to carry out in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives without the consent of the coastal State”.
The US however has not ratified UNCLOS.
The differences essentially revolve around Article 58 (i) of the Convention.
Maritimes countries including the US are of the opinion that the phrase “other internationally lawful uses of the sea” gives them the clearance to operate in the EEZ. They also cite Article 87 to emphasize their stand which lists freedoms in high seas, including freedom of navigation.
Former Naval Chief Reacts
FoN ops by USN ships (ineffective as they may be) in South China Sea, are meant to convey a message to China that the putative EEZ around the artificial SCS islands is an “excessive maritime claim.” But what is the 7th Fleet message for India? https://t.co/epo0CY9mqC
— Arun Prakash (@arunp2810) April 9, 2021
Strategic experts who have been watching the developments very closely say this is the US sending out a larger message to India that friends can agree to disagree and that the US is keeping a close watch on India’s dealings with Russia.
Despite concerns raised by the US, India and Russia Tuesday have decided to further deepen bilateral defence cooperation and Moscow is planning to set up a manufacturing unit producing Russian arms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship ‘Make in India’ initiative.
The Joe Biden administration is also wary of the $5.2 billion S-400 air defence system deal between India and Russia. According to sources, during his visit to India last month, US Defence Secretary Austin had raised this issue and reportedly hinted at possible sanctions.